The Billings Gazette Helps Russ Fagg Begin to Rehabilitate His Political Career

When I think about what frustrates me about political coverage, I think about stories like this one about failed Senate candidate Russ Fagg that appeared in the Billings Gazette today.

Writing about the Federal Election Commission’s failure to find that Fagg broke campaign laws in 2018 when he stretched the idea of an exploratory committee to the breaking point, the story does not include a quote from the group that filed the complaint, fails to provide context about the partisan, broken system of campaign finance enforcement, and gives Fagg the opportunity to take serious liberties with the truth in his effort to rehabilitate his image before a potential 2020 bid.

From the piece:

The Federal Elections Commission has closed a national Democratic group’s complaint against 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Russ Fagg without faulting the Billings Republican.

While that lede suggests that Fagg was cleared of improper action, that’s just not the case. The reason the FEC didn’t investigate the matter more fully is the same reason candidates almost always get away with campaign finance violations: the FEC is in absurd partisan gridlock that prevents it from acting:

The most recent court order is yet another blow to FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, the commission’s only Democrat, who had hoped courts could review enforcement matters that had been blocked by Republican commissioners. Weintraub has repeatedly criticized her Republican colleagues as “obstructionists,” blaming them for the agency’s lack of enforcement.

“With this decision, FEC has utterly lost its ability to enforce the law as foreign [governments] attack our elections, dark-money groups operate from the shadows and super PACs run rampant,” Weintraub tweeted Tuesday.

For instance, in late November the FEC also decided to abandon a complaint against Matt Rosendale, not because they decided the complaint about his campaign taking 34 excess contributions was without merit, but it just didn’t have the resources to pursue the issue.

All context that would have better-informed readers and more accurately framed the failure of the FEC to enforce campaign finance laws.

Later, the piece moves into pure fantasy, letting Fagg claim that he only positioned himself as an exploratory candidate to take care of his work as a district judge. From the Gazette piece:

“Remember the reason I did the exploratory committee. I could have resigned my position as a judge and avoided the whole thing, but I didn’t want to leave the district in the lurch. I felt like it was an obligation to serve and I wanted to go out with my head held high and my caseload current.”

Either Fagg has a nonsensical definition of keeping his caseload current or the reporter from the Gazette didn’t bother to check his claim. As KTVQ reported in November 2017, Fagg left 1,100 open cases for his successor and lied about his plan to clear them:

Fagg had about 1,100 open cases that will be inherited, largely, by Harris, who was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Finally, this passage in the piece is perhaps the most troubling:

Several people told Fagg to forget about the complaint and move on. In elections, FEC complaints are easily weaponized with the complaining party circulating the complaint in the media while the commission, as a general policy, declines to discuss it. In ADLF’s case, the organization began contacting the media about its complaint more than a week before the FEC acknowledged receiving it. The rulings in these complaints come long after elections have been decided.

Who told Fagg to “forget” the complaint? Were these unnamed sources campaign finance experts? Was the contention that FEC complaints are “easily weaponized” the opinion of the reporter or Judge Fagg? And, even given the truth that FEC complaints are used for partisan purposes is true, how does that invalidate the simple truth that Fagg clearly broke the definition of an exploratory candidate?

In his “exploratory campaign,” Fagg:

The FEC is a broken institution that, because it’s partisan and under-staffed, just seems incapable of ensuring that candidates are held accountable when they break the law.

They’re not the only institution critical to our democratic governance suffering from a crisis, it seems.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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